African Adventures: Travel, Philanthropy, and Life-Changing Friendship
After spending more than 30 years working as a part-time nurse in the ICU and Neonatal ICU at various hospitals in Philadelphia, Karen Rowley retired. This was long before she and her husband, Jim, moved to The Hill at Whitemarsh. It was 2008, her seven children were all out of the house, and she suddenly had a lot of free time on her hands. So when a friend told her she was launching an Abington Chapter of the women’s group Together Women Rise, she jumped at the chance to get involved.
“The goal was to bring local women together to make an impact on a national and international level,” said Karen. “Around the time that I got involved, the national organization was working with a nonprofit called Maasai Girls Education Fund, and they presented to our group. I was interested immediately.”
That presentation was given by a young girl from Kenya named Caroline, who had benefited from the Maasai Girls Education Fund. Karen recalls listening to Caroline’s story about watching her brothers become educated and being desperate to have the same opportunities as them. Each day, she’d follow her brothers to school and sit outside the window of the schoolhouse to learn new things, often writing things down in the dirt with a stick. Although no one took her desire for knowledge seriously, she decided to take a standard test that all the boys take before going off to receive a more formal education in Nairobi–and she outperformed all the boys. Maasai Girls Education Fund was able to step in and support her, fully funding Caroline’s education in Nairobi.
Karen was so taken by Caroline’s story that when an opportunity arose for her to join 15 other women on a three-week trip to Kenya organized by Together Women Rise, she didn’t hesitate to say yes.
“When we landed in Nairobi, it was like stepping into another world,” she said. “We saw camels and donkeys alongside taxis in the parking lot–and this was just at the airport! We stayed at a local motel with few luxuries, and we could see elephants and camels and donkeys from our window.”
After an overnight stay in Nairobi, Karen and the rest of the women were taken to the Maasai Mara, one of the largest wildlife conservations in the world and home to the Maasai tribe.
“They had a campsite set up for us with these big, beautiful tents. It was unlike anything I had ever seen,” said Karen. “At night, we could hear the elephants passing by the camp. The Maasai warriors guarded our camp and kept us safe.”
The group was taken down to the village where the Maasai tribe resides and met with the Maasai chief and a few families. Walking around the village, the women were able to learn more about the Maasai culture, partake in bonfire celebrations at night, and, perhaps most importantly, see the school that Together Women Rise and the Maasai Girls Education Fund had helped to build.
“It wasn’t much to look at. They could only use the blackboard one at a time, and many girls still wrote with sticks in the dirt because paper and pencils were very precious,” Karen said. “But we were able to meet some of the young girls who were students there and watched them playing games in the schoolyard.”
“Now I get to enjoy adventure with a well-meaning cause. Being able to travel and serve people has been so rewarding for me.”
– Karen Rowley
In the years since this life-changing trip to Kenya, Karen and Caroline have developed a warm and loving friendship. Caroline has come to visit Karen and her family here in the States many times, and Karen has been back to Africa on multiple occasions. Getting to know Caroline and her story has changed Karen’s life, and they are forever connected through their love of helping others through the field of medicine.
“Caroline was working as a very basic nurse in Kenya–it wasn’t very professional–just supporting people however she could manage. I ended up paying for Caroline to attend a proper nursing school in Nairobi, and she graduated with a BSN. She eventually went on to apply to medical school, and she got in! I also helped her pay for it. She will get her degree and become a doctor this year. I’m so very proud of her.”
Having grown up in the Kensington section of Philadelphia, Karen was always trying to seek out new adventures and explore beyond the confines of her neighborhood. Her adventurous spirit brought her to nursing school in Germantown before settling down with her family in Mt. Airy. Most recently, it’s brought her and Jim to The Hill at Whitemarsh, where they moved in late 2022.
“Now I get to enjoy adventure with a well-meaning cause,” she said. “Being able to travel and serve people has been so rewarding for me.”
Her next great adventure? Planning another trip to Kenya for Caroline’s graduation from medical school.
For more information on Together Women Rise, visit togetherwomenrise.org.